Thursday, June 8, 2017

Almost Equal To (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Been going to see plays and performances at Santa Monica's City Garage for about a year now, and must say in general I like their repertoire very much.  My term for much of what they do is "Theatre of Dreams."  Rather than anything really linear, we experience something with the logic of dreams, sometimes as if a dream is precisely what we're viewing.  Almost Equal To by Jonas Hassen Khemiri takes this idea into another iteration, in which the characters share not only what is happening in the real world (or what we call "real") but some of their minds.

Which almost makes this a naturalistic work, by City Garage standards.  Almost.

Forgive me for talking about style instead of substance.  In this case (often the case with really good theatre) the two end up entwined.  A part time economics professor (Andrew Loviska) begins literally with a description of falling.  He seeks to make his students see the subject as fascinating, filled with the life story of extraordinary, eccentric, very real human beings--including a former chocolates manufacturer named Van Houten (Bo Roberts) who walked away from vast commercial success to spend the rest of his life learning.  Therein lies a clue about the play's subject.  Two in fact.  The falling, and the dissatisfaction, coupled with an attempt to understand it in rational, even academic terms.

What follows at first seems like an almost disconnected series of sketches about characters who have little in common save their interest in economics as a set of ideas--most of whom simply fail at achieving what they want.  All of them end up demonstrating how the current system fundamentally fails on a human level.  The most financially successful individual is a homeless man named Peter (Johanny Paulino) who apparently is anything but homeless, yet by artful pretense makes a good living.  Martina (Lindsay Plake) meanwhile dreams of a radically new world and life, seemingly to no avail, slowly succumbing to the hyper-materialistic, ethics-free voice in her head (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson) who sometimes shares the stage with her.  A boy (Jeffrey Gardner) feels compassion and generosity, hence in effect robs himself and then finds himself beaten up by his older brother as part of a "rescue" of the money lost.  This makes perfect sense given the way their mother (Sandy Mansson) raised them, with frugality worshiped above joy.  Later we get a glimpse of a strange episode involving a woman (Ann Bronston) who might have just tried to commit murder to get her job back.

All of this and more becomes clearly more than coincidence and theme as the second act begins, when we see just how much these character intersect within each others' lives. The web which twists them, threatening sanity and safety--threats they often see, and sometimes clearly understand if not quite finding a way to escape--becomes more than theatrical motif.  What brings so much harm to these characters proves a pervasive system, a set of values and institutions encouraging the very worst in each of them.  And in us.  Paranoia.  Violence.  Dishonesty, especially to oneself.  Hopelessness--not only as an emotion but a fact.  Yet not presented as a dirge or lecture, but almost a poem.  A sad, disturbing, touching poem.  Not, as it happens, an unusual facet in productions directed by Frederique Michel.

Almost Equal To plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm until July 2, 2017 at the City Garage, Building T1, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica CA 90404.

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